As Lebanon sets into its most severe lockdown yet, enacting a 24-hour curfew until January 25 to curb surging numbers of new coronavirus cases, booksellers are bracing themselves for yet another daunting challenge.
With the political crises, financial meltdown and the pandemic, Lebanese bookshops were struggling to survive. When last year’s port blast ripped through much of Beirut, it destroyed imported book stocks, and damaged shops and venues across the city.
For many Lebanese, books and comics are a vital source of entertainment and escapism, more so amidst the uncertainty and upheaval of the last 18 months. Forced to adapt, many booksellers still go out of business.
Dar Bistro& Books, in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood, closed its bookstore permanently after the March 2020 lockdown. For others, simply surviving is the goal.
“Things were already very difficult because of the economic crisis,” Rania Naufal, founder of the independent art bookshop Paper Cup, told Al Arabiya English. “I struggled to pay suppliers and, if I can’t pay suppliers, then either they close my account or I can’t buy books anymore. It was very difficult for a whole year, and then the explosion happened. This was the last blow.”
Despite receiving some financial aid from the Dutch NGO, the Prince Claus Fund that helped rebuild the property the future of Paper Cup is uncertain, and remains shut.
“The situation is so bad that I don’t think it’s viable at this moment. I took the decision to put everything on hold,” Naufal said.
Nearby, in Gemmayzeh, English-language bookshop and literary bar, Aaliya's Books was already fighting to overcome skyrocketing costs and dwindling business revenue, when the port explosion ravaged the shop.
“Most of the English-language books we used to stock were imported, so they were priced in dollars generally,” explained Aaliya’s Books’ co-founder Niamh Fleming-Farrell. “Gradually, we noticed our suppliers beginning to shift their pricing from dollars into Lebanese [pounds].”
With fresh US dollars in short supply and the Lebanese pound in freefall, this forces Lebanese businesses to buy foreign currency at exorbitant black market rates to buy products from abroad. This creates massive increases in costs for consumer goods in the country.
“Imported books have become very expensive due to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound,” said chain bookstore Librairie Antoine Chairman & CEO Sami Naufal “We have contained this huge inflation to a certain extent through the reliance on our available stocks, but we had to quickly adapt to the market’s real foreign exchange parity to stay in business.
“Whenever possible, we are also trying to buy rights to print locally. French publishers have been quite receptive and eager to help to this effect,” he added.
Despite these blows, many of Lebanon’s booksellers remain determined to recover. Some, including Aaliya’s Books, have already begun transitioning towards secondhand book sales.
“Books have a very small margin,” said Fleming-Farrell. “They, on their own, don’t cover the costs of running an establishment like this, but they are very important to the identity of what we do. Sometimes, we get really lucky when people are leaving the country and they just decide to donate all of their books to us.
“We’re still trying to figure out where to go from here,” she admitted. “We have a lot more empty bookshelf space than previously and the objective is to fill it. It just feels a bit like flying blind right now.”